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UPDATED: Despite rumors, religious floats welcome in Galax parade

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By Brian Funk, Editor

UPDATED 10/12/09

The Galax Downtown Association still proudly uses the word "Christmas" to describe its annual December parade, not the controversially generic "holiday" or "winter."

The parade — with the theme "Music, Memories and Miracles" — welcomes churches to enter floats and even has a category for best religious float.

In fact, a Christmas theme isn't just suggested for entry — it's kind of a requirement.

Last year, Grace Baptist Church in Fries took home the top prize for its elaborate religious-themed float in Galax's parade.

So why this year is Grace Baptist's pastor reportedly threatening a boycott of the parade?

That's what GDA officials would like to know.

(As of press time Friday, Pastor Ben Haga had not returned calls or e-mails from the GDA  or The Gazette about the issue. On Monday, GDA Director Jenny Davis said Haga had contacted her and listened respectfully to her explanation.  "He asked a few questions and said he'd bring it before his church.")

Both the downtown merchants' association and the newspaper have heard from folks who are aware of the call for a boycott.

Margo Crouse of Margo's Interior Decorating, a GDA member, said a man came into her store last week who had heard third-hand that the parade wouldn't allow floats with crosses or other religious images. He was one of the first to mention Grace Baptist's call for a boycott.

All of this perplexes Davis. “Float rules and regulations are the same as they have always been,” she said.

Longtime GDA member Sharon Ritchie of Chapters Bookshop agrees. She doesn't know how long ago the rules were first written, “but I can't remember any significant changes to the rules in the past 10 years.”

There's even a rule that says “All vehicles must carry a Christmas message or theme.”

Davis thinks the backlash against the parade may stem from rule number four on the list: "No political speeches or religious preaching is permitted" from the floats.

She said this longstanding rule addresses noise, not free speech.

This regulation was on the list last year, when Grace Baptist entered a float, says Davis as she produces a signed entry form from her records.

Ritchie says it's been on the list as long as she can remember.

Davis believes the rule was first instated to keep groups from saying anything offensive from the floats. “I believe we had some offensive groups that showed up in the past.”

Now, the only noise that should come from a float is music or singing.

(The City of Galax has a similar ordinance against adults wearing masks that cover their faces, and it has nothing to do with trick-or-treating. It's aimed at prohibiting Ku Klux Klan marches, where members cover their heads with hoods.)

Davis said the rule is more of a noise regulation than anything. With dozens of floats, cars, trucks, horns, sirens, bands, amplified music and cheering crowds, having speeches or sermons of any kind from a float is impractical.

“We've had complaints in the past about amplified music, so the parade is already plenty loud,” Ritchie said.

Visual depictions of religious images are perfectly fine, according to the rules, as are both religious and secular Christmas music, Bible verses on floats and other messages of a religious nature.

Davis, Ritchie and Crouse say what upsets them about the boycott is that the rumor is not true and they can't reach anyone at the church to explain. Crouse said Haga should have come to the GDA with concerns first, before talking to his congregation.

Davis said the GDA has met with others who contacted them about the boycott and hopes the message gets out. “This is a community event, and we want everyone to come together, regardless of their beliefs."

Crouse realizes a rumor is hard to correct once it's out there, but she prays the GDA can do that. “God is not the author of confusion,” she said.